Pwyllgor yr Economi, Seilwaith a Sgiliau - Y Bumed Senedd

Economy, Infrastructure and Skills Committee - Fifth Senedd

13/01/2021

Aelodau'r Pwyllgor a oedd yn bresennol

Committee Members in Attendance

Helen Mary Jones MS
Russell George MS Cadeirydd y Pwyllgor
Committee Chair
Suzy Davies MS
Vikki Howells MS

Y rhai eraill a oedd yn bresennol

Others in Attendance

Gareth Jones Town Square Spaces Cyf
Town Square Spaces Ltd
Lord Burns Cadeirydd, Comisiwn Trafnidiaeth De-orllewin Cymru
Chair, South East Wales Transport Commission
Mike Scott Indycube
Indycube
Peter McDonald Pennaeth Ysgrifenyddiaeth, Comisiwn Trafnidiaeth De-orllewin Cymru
Head of Secretariat, South East Wales Transport Commission
Phil Roberts Prif Weithredwr, Cyngor Dinas a Sir Abertawe
Chief Executive, City and County of Swansea Council
Rob Stewart Arweinydd, Cyngor Dinas a Sir Abertawe
Leader, City and County of Swansea Council

Swyddogion y Senedd a oedd yn bresennol

Senedd Officials in Attendance

Andrew Minnis Ymchwilydd
Researcher
Gareth David Thomas Ymchwilydd
Researcher
Lara Date Ail Glerc
Second Clerk
Robert Lloyd-Williams Dirprwy Glerc
Deputy Clerk

Cofnodir y trafodion yn yr iaith y llefarwyd hwy ynddi yn y pwyllgor. Yn ogystal, cynhwysir trawsgrifiad o’r cyfieithu ar y pryd. Lle mae cyfranwyr wedi darparu cywiriadau i’w tystiolaeth, nodir y rheini yn y trawsgrifiad.

The proceedings are reported in the language in which they were spoken in the committee. In addition, a transcription of the simultaneous interpretation is included. Where contributors have supplied corrections to their evidence, these are noted in the transcript.

Cyfarfu'r pwyllgor drwy gynhadledd fideo.

Dechreuodd y cyfarfod am 09:45.

The committee met by video-conference.

The meeting began at 09:45. 

1. Cyflwyniad, ymddiheuriadau, dirprwyon a datgan buddiannau
1. Introductions, apologies, substitutions and declarations of interest

Bore da. Croeso, bawb. I'd like to welcome Members back, and stakeholders, and wish them a happy new year. I hope that all Members, as well as our stakeholders listening in, had an enjoyable break over the Christmas period. Under Standing Order 34.19, I've determined that the public are excluded from the meeting for public health reasons, although this meeting is being broadcast live on Senedd.tv and the Record of Proceedings is available in the normal way, following the meeting. Members, at the beginning of the meeting in our pre-discussion, agreed that Suzy Davies would stand in if there's any technical problem with my feed this morning. And we've had apologies from Joyce Watson and Hefin David. If Members do have any declarations of interest, please say now.

2. Papurau i'w nodi
2. Papers to note

In that case, I move to item 2, and we have one paper to note, which is a letter from the Minister for Economy, Transport and North Wales regarding evidence taken on 25 November. He's given us a very comprehensive reply, so that is just for noting. Members are happy to note that. Thank you very much.

3. Comisiwn Trafnidiaeth De Ddwyrain Cymru
3. South East Wales Transport Commission

I move to item 3, and this is with regard to South East Wales Transport Commission. The commission published its final report on 26 November, and Lord Burns, who's here to update us today, was previously with us in committee on 6 February last year. A lot has happened since 6 February last year, and no doubt some of that will be the subject of some of our questions this morning. But I would like to give a warm welcome to Lord Burns, who's the chair of the South East Wales Transport Commission, along with Peter McDonald, who's also joining us and who's the head of secretariat, from the commission also. So, welcome, both, this morning.

If I could just perhaps ask a very general opening question, and it gives you, Lord Burns, the opportunity to expand on any opening comments you want to make, I'm really interested in a brief overview of the work that you've undertaken and the recommendations that you've made under each of the five packages, and perhaps you could talk a little bit about the engagement with stakeholders that you've had, and the public, in developing your recommendations.

Well, thank you very much, Chair, and it's a pleasure to be back with the committee. As you say, it was last February that we came—in person at that time, of course—to give evidence. On that occasion, Pete McDonald and I outlined the basic analysis of traffic patterns on the M4 that we had established during our initial research, and we discussed with the committee the extent to which the pressure on the road was a peak-time commuter problem and that there was an absence of alternatives that were competitive in terms of time, reliability and cost. I think, at that meeting too, we had some discussion about some of our ideas, and we said at that time that we wanted to explore the possibility of a local stopping rail service between the Severn estuary and Cardiff without interfering with the inter-city service. We also said that, for rail and bus transport, there was an issue of governance and who was the guiding mind in ensuring that services are properly integrated. And, in response to your questions, of course, we outlined the consultations that we proposed to have with various stakeholder groups.

Now, of course, it was shortly afterwards that we found ourselves in lockdown, but we did manage to discuss in one way or another the issues with a variety of groups. We had a lot of meetings with elected representatives, we had meetings with business groups, with transport operators, and a lot of interaction with the general public. I should also add that, in addition, before lockdown, we did spend quite a lot of time experiencing transport for ourselves, particularly around Newport, and looking at not only the areas where the problems were but also some of the areas where we thought that there might be solutions. And this was the basis, really, for the recommendations that we've now presented in the report, all of which are structured around the concept of an integrated public transport and active travel network. The backbone of this, the spine of this, is the proposal for this local stopping rail service between Severn estuary and Cardiff, which we have established can be done by separating the lines, which we put forward proposals for, along with it additional stations. We have then also gone on to outline a way around that concept of an integrated rail service to have, in a sense, a much wider integrated public transport and active travel network. So, this network is made up of rail, bus and cycling services. We argue that, to make it effective, the different services have got to be properly integrated. This creates what we have described as a network of alternatives, which is designed to serve the most common M4 trips, and, in doing so, we think that it has the potential to reduce congestion on the motorway, but it can also deliver a wider range of additional benefits relating to the environment, to fair access to transport and to healthier lifestyles.

We came to view this too as a wider issue, really, about having the sort of network necessary for really helping people in the area to fulfil their potential. It became increasingly clear to us that the area around the M4 in south-east Wales is a very important economic corridor for Wales. It's expanding, and it's become a very attractive for people to work and live. And just like similar regions in the UK and Europe, it does need a range of high-quality and affordable transport options if it's going to fulfil that potential. And that, we think, is a very important background to this.

We have provided five packages, and we are very happy to discuss any part of it. We have a package for infrastructure, network policies, behaviour change, for transport and governance, and for land use and planning, and I think it's probably best if I leave you to decide which of those you would like to focus on, and the kind of questions you would like to put to us, Chair.

09:50

Thank you, Lord Burns. That's a really helpful overview ahead of some more questions coming from Members. I wonder if you could also tell us what the response has been from the stakeholders that you've mentioned since the report was published. What kind of response have you had?

Well, I have to say we have had what in my eyes are very positive responses. I think all of the proposals that we have made have been welcomed. The biggest pushback we've had, actually, has been from people who, in a sense, are outside of the region that we have discussed for our proposals—so, people west of Cardiff, people in south Monmouthshire and who are, in a sense, just outside of the area that we have focused upon, and it's—

Well, they would like to be part of it and that we haven't dealt, in a sense, with their problems—so, the people who live around Chepstow, between Chepstow and Severn tunnel junction, and the problems they have in getting to Bristol as well as to Cardiff. The people to the west of Cardiff, of course, where there isn't the option of expanding the rail network from the existing infrastructure, would like to think that they are not neglected. Apart from that, I have to tell you that the biggest pushback we get is saying, 'Well, we like this, we think it's very good, we think that it will make a big difference, but is it really going to happen? We keep being promised various ideas and things that will make life better, but, in the end, it either goes at a snail's pace or it gets lost.' So, a degree of scepticism, I should say, that we encountered, but mainly from people who were really quite excited by the ideas that we were proposing.

The only other slight pushback, of course, is that what we are talking about here is something that would really be a major reconstruction of travel in this area, and it is bound to take time. The options for making rapid changes here are few. There are changes, and we have discussed those things that could be done in a shorter time, but I think we have to recognise there's been a long period when the kind of work that we're discussing here, we feel, should have happened and it hasn't happened, and so there's no way of this happening overnight.

09:55

I'm sure Members might want to dig in a bit further on some of what you said there, Lord Burns. I suppose the final question from me on this, before we move on to other Members, is if you could expand anything more in terms of the criteria that you used to bring forward the recommendations, or what factors influenced them.

Well, the main one, of course, was, in a sense, the job that we had, which was to try to find alternatives that would take pressure off the road, but we were also particularly interested in some of the wider issues about the environment, about air quality, about simply improving people's lives. Cost and whether or not things could be done at a reasonable cost, of course, was an important feature of this, and we have rested quite heavily on the fact that the biggest issue here is to have this backbone of the rail service, and the potential is already there, in terms of the railway lines that have so far been rather underused since the requirement for as much freight has gone. So, we were very conscious of cost, we were very conscious of feasibility, how they could be done, how they could be integrated, but our main focus was upon how to try to remove some of the problems that are there with the existing road.

Yes, would you mind? Sorry, it's just gone blank on me, and I've been trying to fix it while we're talking. Sorry.

I want to discuss some of the complex and practical implications, and, first of all, we are very conscious, of course, that the rail infrastructure is not devolved. Did you consider the implications of that and how some of the proposals might be delivered in that context where we have to depend on the UK Government for some of the delivery?

Yes, we're very conscious of this, although I should say that, whether things are devolved or not, it was always, if one was going to make changes here, it had to be done in co-operation between Wales and England, because, of course, we have this other requirement, which is that the mainline service should not be interrupted and it should not be parked. So, whatever, in a sense, the governance arrangements were overall, it was always going to have to be a collective endeavour to be able to deal with this, and so we have had discussions with Network Rail, and I've also talked to the Secretary of State for Wales about this. We recognise that it requires bringing together a group of people, not only the two Governments, but we also have Transport for Wales, we have Network Rail, who are going to have to co-operate very strongly if we are to do this. I've also discussed it with the person who is now chair of the nation's connectivity study and how this fits into that.

We've had a very good response from these various bodies. I think Network Rail had been looking for a solution to the issue of what to do to this stretch west of the estuary for some time, and various other options have been explored, some of them not quite as adventurous as this. So, it's not that we're entering here into territory that people have either looked at and decided they didn't want to do anything with it, or felt that they had better ideas. I think what we have done is to bring forward a proposal for dealing with this that works very well with the needs of south-east Wales. I am quite hopeful that we can get good interaction with the various bodies who would have to co-operate if we're going to deliver on this. 

10:00

Peter McDonald can tell you a bit more about some of the recent discussions, but we have had a good response from the bodies that we have talked to. 

That's encouraging. Can you tell us a bit about how your recommendations fit with the Welsh Government's existing metro plans?

They fit very closely. We have had the plans for that very much in the back of our mind as we have looked at these options. Indeed, one of the stations that we are proposing at Newport Road—the one that's nearest to Cardiff—very much came to us as a result of discussions as to how this would all interact with these wider proposals. So, we regard them as complementary. We regard that the two things would very much fit together. Maybe Peter would like to say a few words about this.  

Of course, Lord Burns. I would go slightly further and say that we've designed them explicitly to fit together. So, very broadly, the metro proposals tend to focus on north-south travel, often to Cardiff, whereas our remit has led us more to the east-west travel. Actually, the type of people who are making those journeys are quite different. So, if you're going north to south, you will rarely go east to west, and the vice versa is also true. So the metro proposals would do a great deal for the people coming to Cardiff from the Valleys, for example, but those people are generally not using the motorway, so we're trying to cater for a different type of transport user. But what we have sought to do is to ensure that those two systems link up in the eastern part of Cardiff and the western part of Newport, in particular at Newport Road, Cardiff Parkway and Newport West—those are our key points of tessellation between the two transport systems. 

That's helpful, thank you. Of course, the impact of COVID has led to some changes in how our public transport is being managed at present. Rail operations have been taken directly under Welsh Government control and, of course, they're looking at how they redesign the funding mechanisms for bus services, and the hope is that that gives more influence on where the buses are running. Have you considered how those changes have impacted on your proposals, and do you have any views about whether that's helpful or otherwise?

Well, there are two aspects to this. One has been, I think, what the impact of it has been upon both road use and upon public transport—

Sorry, Lord Burns, I know Vikki Howells has some specific questions on the pandemic, which I'll come to next. So, if you could just deal with the bus aspect, if that's all right. 

Okay. On the bus aspect, the direction that we've had to move in to deal with the problems associated with COVID I think have, in a way, brought to wider attention the need for greater integration of these modes. We talk in the report about the issue about guiding mind, when it comes to particularly bus transport but also to the way that bus transport interacts with the other modes. I think what COVID has done is to have, in a way, highlighted the need for a good deal more of a guiding mind with regard to these services than has been the case in recent years. 

Helen Mary, if you're going to move on to the next set, do you mind if I come back to you?

It was my mistake. I should have brought in Vikki Howells at the beginning. I called Suzy by mistake. So I'll come back to you, Helen Mary, if that's all right. 

10:05

Can I just check, Lord Burns—? In your answer to Helen Mary Jones, you mentioned you'd had discussions with the Secretary of State for Wales. What was the outcome of those discussions? How did he respond?

I would say he was quite positive. If I was to be quite honest, he did not want to have a discussion as to whether this was a substitute for a new road or not, but he thought that, in themselves, there were a lot of good ideas here, and I think he was interested in them. As it happened, I didn't want to get into a discussion either as to whether or not it was a substitute for a new road, because, as I explained to the committee back in February, I was very anxious that the job of the commission should be very much focused upon the job that we had been given, which was to focus on alternatives, rather than to get into this world of comparisons. But I took him through the outline of what it was that we were doing, and, again, in relation to the particular proposals that we are making, I thought that he was very interested.

Okay. I'll come to Vikki Howells, and then I'll come back to Helen Mary, and then I'll come to Suzy. Sorry for the confusion; my fault completely. Vikki Howells.

Thank you, Chair, and good morning, Lord Burns. I've got some questions around the pandemic and the impact that it's had on your work. Firstly, I note that the commission has expressed the strong view that the pandemic doesn't alter the need for more transport options in south-east Wales. Could you just talk us through your thinking a little there, please?

There are two factors, I think, that influenced us a lot. One is that if you look at the long-term trends here, one has seen the growing influence of people journeying into the city for the kind of jobs that they want to do—or, I should say, the cities. We don't really see that, over the long term, that tendency is going to change, because many of the jobs that are being created and the jobs that people want to do tend to be based in those areas. Obviously, we have had the experience, however, in the short term, of seeing people work from home to a much greater degree; people have now been able to experiment with all sorts of different patterns of work.

What we saw as we went through the first phase of the pandemic, of course, is that a lot of people returned to work, a lot of them returned to travelling by road, and there's probably going to be some lasting effect of that. But if you take together the long-term growth in terms of commuter travel and of people travelling long distances to do the jobs that they really want to do, we think that will dominate the extent to which we have seen people working more remotely.

I should say that we do recommend and are strongly of the view that in terms of the things that the Welsh Government has proposed, we should as far as possible make it easier for people to work at some distance from their offices, and there are some very good outcomes that could come from that. But the commission's view was that the underlying pattern of where jobs grow—in those city areas—is one that is going to remain a dominant force between work and home in the future.

In terms of the Welsh Government's push for more home working and remote working in the long term, would you say that that's part of the mix of solutions, but that it's not sufficient for you to roll back on any of the areas that you're looking at?

We think that more remote working is itself a useful antidote to some of the pressures upon the road system. The question, really, for us, was whether one wants to leave the road system with the job of doing all the carrying of people to and from work, or whether you need some alternatives. We didn't think that it actually changed the conclusion that do we need alternatives. To try to get everybody to and from work, where they're spread out over such a large area, by road, is really a very strong challenge. The whole focus of our work is upon this notion that we need alternatives and we need different ways in which people can go for their leisure and for their work in relation to the city.

10:10

Thank you. In your opening remarks, you said that you and your team have been out and about looking at the various locations and looking at traffic flow. Did that include any sort of assessment of traffic levels and traffic patterns since the start of the pandemic?

We've been monitoring this quite closely. We have a counter on the M4 at Magor, so we've been able to see what has been happening. And, of course, as you know, the traffic levels fell very sharply at the beginning of the first lockdown. By the summer, we were back to the normal level very briefly before the next wave pushed in. The other effect that took place, however, was that the flows were much more evenly distributed across the day. The peaks—both the morning and the evening peaks—were not as strong as they had been before the pandemic. Of course, what we saw from that was also how much better the road performed. It actually turned out not to need an enormous reduction in the total flow, if we could get it spread out across the day, to be able to make the road perform much better than it had been doing before March. So, we felt that there was quite a lot of useful support there for our idea that this was, essentially, a commuter problem—this was a peak time problem. But it was also very striking the way in which the traffic flows came back again as we got into the summer period. We were almost back to the level that had been seen in the previous year. Peter might want to say more about this. 

I just wanted to point out that once those traffic levels had returned to their usual daily levels in August, we still had between 25 per cent and 30 per cent of people working from home, and that's a UK average figure. So, it does indicate that even if the Welsh Government were to fully achieve its remote working target immediately, which I think even they would say is ambitious, we would still have a very high demand for the road. And whilst, as Lord Burns says, the road performed relatively well during August, what we would find over time is the underlying growth caused by the new housing, the new jobs, the high population growth in the cities. It's only a matter of time—the question is how many years—before it rises to a level such that the road cannot then cope. So, we certainly have a period of time, with the lasting effects of COVID, during which pressure should be relieved, but the underlying fundamentals in the region mean it's a question of when, not if, you need the additional transport capacity. 

That's very interesting and useful. Thank you, both. A final question from me: to turn to your 2019 progress report, how content are you with the Welsh Government's approach to implementing the initial road-based measures that were set out in that report?

I would say that it took a little while before things got going, but there is work now under way. We're content with the way that that is progressing. The average-speed control over the whole of the area that we proposed is now, I believe, being implemented, but I think Peter, again, is in a better position to brings us up to date on that. 

Yes, that's correct. I think all of the recommendations have either been completed or are in train. The thing that we will be looking out for is the enforcement of the average-speed control, because people will realise quite quickly if that is not being enforced. If we want it to have its desired effect, it needs to be enforced.

10:15

I think that is very important. I have quite a lot of experience, around the south-east of England, where I live, of average speed control, and it is very striking that its success is very much related to the degree of enforcement that takes place. People quickly find out if it is not being enforced, and you can see when either they don't know what the word 'average' means, or they have discovered that there is no enforcement on it.

Thank you, Chair. Obviously, providing good alternatives is the key way of getting people out of their cars and into public transport, but there are disincentives that can be used to discourage people from using cars as well, and I just wondered what your views are on road user charging schemes, or charging for workplace parking levies. Do those disincentives have a role as well as the positive incentives of better public transport?

Well, yes, we do. We think they have a very important part to play. The issue of road user charging is a complicated one, as was set out in the report, because with any road user charging you can get all kinds of offsetting behaviour as people try to find ways around it, and there's always the question of how fairly it is treating people who live within an area or outside of an area. What we've said there is that we believe that road use charging in the long term—and we mean the long term—is very likely to happen, as we move towards electric vehicles. There is a lot of money tied up at the moment that the Government collects from fuel duty, and it's going to have to find that money from somewhere. We believe that the longer term is probably going to mean that there will be a UK-wide road user charging system put in place, and until that happens we're not attracted to the idea of trying to do a local one particularly for Wales, or particularly for this region within Wales, because of the adverse consequences. We do propose that there should be a workplace parking levy. We think this goes with the grain of things. Many people already, of course, have got to pay for their own parking. We would like to see that associated, also, with workplace travel planning by companies themselves. They themselves can be quite important instruments in terms of encouraging people to change their behaviour.

I think elsewhere, where people have had the same sorts of problems that we have in south-east Wales, they have discovered that you need a combination of stick and carrot with this. It is partly a question of providing an alternative. Some of the stick, of course, comes from the congestion itself, but it also comes from these other costs. Behaviour change can be slow. It sometimes needs incentives. Sometimes the incentives can be temporary, and they may come, also, through support for pricing for alternative modes of transport. We discussed this over a long period and believe that it is going to need help from both ends, as you describe, both to encourage people and to disincentivise people. But we're very nervous about—. Some of the systems for road user charging and congestion charging that are introduced can have some really quite unfair consequences on people who live in—in terms of how they treat people.

Yes, I can fully see that. You mentioned in response to an earlier question the need for that single guiding mind to make sure that all of this happens, and you touched on the quite complex partnerships that will need to be built. Can you tell us a bit more about how you think that single guiding mind should be delivered and how the partnership to deliver this work ought to be structured?

I think there are two levels of this. One is that, for each mode, almost, you need some kind of guiding mind, but you also need a guiding mind in terms of the integration of each of the modes. So, in terms of rail, there is going to have to be technology that brings together Network Rail, UK Government, Welsh Government and Transport for Wales to be able to, certainly, take forward this project and to then get it up and running. And there will then subsequently be an issue of who manages it at that point.

In terms of buses, we do think that if it's to work and the buses are to work effectively with the rail system, there is probably going to have to be a new way of regulating buses in terms of how you determine which are the key routes—we'd like to see integrated ticketing and we would like to see the co-ordination of services and they need to be brought together. Similarly, with active travel, we will need the local authorities to work with Transport for Wales.

And then, there is a question of what is the overarching body here and how to do that. And we didn't take a strong position on exactly what that should be, but we discussed some options. I think the most important thing here is to go from the position that it is something that is needed. And whether there is some kind of partnership board or whatever, I think is for others to discuss further down the line, but we have highlighted it as a very important part of these proposals. And we looked at evidence in other countries in Europe that had made rather more progress than we had made in terms of moving to public transport based traffic systems for cities; the guiding mind is a very important component of that.

10:20

Thank you, that's helpful. If I can just pick up on your response there and ask one slightly more specific question, you said about the importance of a new way of regulating buses, did you take a view about the bus service Bill, which, of course, the Welsh Government then had to withdraw because of COVID? Would that have enabled that kind of improved regulation and supported the integration you're talking about, or would you think that there'd be a need for additional provisions over and above what was in that draft Bill?

Could I ask Peter to deal with this?

Of course. So, that Bill would've done good things, in particular, the inclusion of franchising powers are entirely consistent with our governance recommendations. But as you say, it was drafted before COVID and I think, when it is brought back—and we have recommended that it is brought back as soon as possible—the provisions in that Bill should be treated as a minimum. So, I think they were helpful and if we had them in our armoury, if we had them in our toolbox, it would be very beneficial. The question is whether we've learnt anything over the COVID experience that means we can or should be more ambitious. So, I would treat them as a floor rather than a ceiling.

That's very helpful, thank you. That's all from me, thank you, Chair.

Thank you. I just wanted a few words about the costing of your suggestions and what you've taken into account in coming to your conclusions. I particularly wanted to understand, bearing in mind that the plans for the metro have already been at least partially costed, what was the effect of what you know about the costings at the moment on the figures that you've proposed and actually, whether there might be a sort of converse reaction as well in that, now that you have these proposals with the costing elements attached to them, whether that might have any implications for the metro costings themselves.

Well, if you look at where our costings are, in a sense, they are very much additional to the metro, because we have a core capital cost of £600 million to £800 million and a significant part of that is to do this work on the railway, getting the lines separated, getting them upgraded so that all four lines can take trains at 90 mph, and then building the stations that go with them. There are some places—the Newport road proposal would be something that would interact very much with it, and there are other places, as Peter pointed out earlier, where we're going to be getting interactions between one system and another, but I think he can say a little bit more about this. But fundamentally, these costs, I would say, are additional and they don't really have much interaction, I don't think, with the metro cost.

10:25

So, certainly, the capital costs are additive, and we produced those with our technical team, and then we've got those numbers checked by a separate costs consultancy. So, they are high-level, but they are not back-of-the-envelope, and they include optimism bias as well, and then an allowance for uncertainty in addition to that. Where the interaction comes more is on the revenue side. So, as you'll have noted elsewhere in our report, we say that the revenue costs are quite dependent upon the patronage of the number of people who we get on these rail services. That really determines how much subsidy is needed. But the more that we can do to improve public transport, the greater the draw of people to that public transport. So, I think doing this would, potentially, attract more people and, potentially, attract more patronage. So, doing both together might mean that you have proportionately less subsidy overall, if that makes sense.

Yes. I'll come back to you on the revenue costs for the moment, but I just want to double check that now that you've produced your report that there won't be any likelihood then of the metro proposals themselves changing because they can see that there are other certain advantages in what you're suggesting, which means that they have to do slightly less, which might reduce their costs. That, of course, could then, potentially, add to your costs, and maybe the whole envelope is no bigger, but who is responsible for what might change. Is that a risk at all, or are you content that things will probably not move and that I'm safe to move on to my questions about the revenue implications?

Shall I take that one, Lord Burns?

Given that we had clear sight of the metro proposals before we began, we have designed ours to fit with what is existing in those plans. So, you obviously learn things as you go along and, as these proposals will be developed, I'm sure new things will be learned, but in high-level terms, we don't see any need why the metro needs to go back to the drawing board, and we don't see any reason why the general costs of the metro should change in any way, in capital terms. These are separate but complementary projects.

Well, that's great to hear that. Perhaps you could just take us through a little bit of detail then on how you've come up with the figures relating to the revenue costs ongoing.

Of course. So, in the report, we estimated annual ongoing revenue costs of between £15 million and £30 million, and that range reflects the potential range in degree of subsidy required to run the rail services. And where we end up in that range is largely a function of how many passengers can be attracted to the service, which is why I make the point about the interaction with the metro. The two networks may well help each other if they generally attract people, because people can do flexible journeys on them.

It's worth saying that that subsidy range is taken from the pre-COVID way of the world, when we had rather more people using the rail network than we have today. So, there is an implicit assumption in our report that, in the medium term, once social distancing has come to an end, that we will be able to encourage people back to the railway. So, I think that's important to note.

We're very conscious that £15 million to £30 million is a large number, in absolute terms, given the revenue constraints of the Welsh Government. But, actually, when you put it in context of some of the other numbers involved in transport, we believe it's proportionate and can be described as value for money, certainly in the overall costs of running the rail franchise in Wales.

Okay, and just finally from me, Chair, we're used to hearing stories, from the south-east of England in particular, where commuter season tickets and so forth go up in price quite dramatically in order to help meet the costs of running those services. If we're talking about even a fairly wide range, between £15 million to £30 million in terms of public subsidy into the system, which then gets used less than is perhaps anticipated, does that mean that the costs of the actual traveller per capita is likely to go up in order to maintain the viability of the service?

10:30

Well, I mean, one of our ambitions here is that one should have a service where fares are fair and they are reasonable and that they are affordable, and that the system can be used by the whole community. And, obviously, in part, this is an issue about competition between the public transport and between car use and the road, but they've got to be kept in balance. In the end, these things do have to be paid for by one means or another. But we have stressed the extent to which we see this as a public transport system; it's got to be a system that is available to everybody who wants to use it.

Partly, of course, some of the measures we've discussed earlier, ultimately about road user charging or between workplace parking levies or whatever, they themselves will also make a contribution towards the costs of running this service. And, as I said, there is no free lunch on this, but we very much hope that this is a system that can be introduced and it can be run, and it can be operated in a way that is fair to all of the users.

Thank you, Suzy. As I understand it, Lord Burns, your work is done, really. You've handed the report over to the Government, and now it's over to them. But if I can perhaps ask you some views about the next steps from your perspective. It'd be interesting, any views you've got on the time frames for delivery, particularly on which recommendations you think should be delivered perhaps immediately or in the short term, then the medium term and the long term.

With the road proposals, the most important thing is to get started on them, because they are the things that are going to take the longest. I'm very anxious that that should remain in the centre of people's attention and that that should be worked on, because it's a very important part of this. But it is the part that will take longest to deliver. The others to do with road corridors as priorities, to do with active travel routes, to do with ticketing systems, to do with the co-ordination of rail and buses, work can begin on those, really, at a much earlier point. Of course, they won't deliver the full range of benefits until one is able to do the whole thing, but we think that, in terms of some of the bus proposals and the active travel things, some of those integration issues we can get started on. Pete can say a bit more about it. Work has already started on some of this.

Yes. The first thing to say is that the Welsh Government has already established a delivery unit and given it some staff, which is very welcome. So, we're encouraged by the early signs, but obviously there's a long way left to go. I think what I would say is that it's important to not just focus on the infrastructure. So, it would be very easy just to progress some of the infrastructure proposals, and that's quite a well-trodden street, but what we cannot afford to do is to not make progress on some of the wider measures, such as relating to governance and behaviour change, because, really, the network only holds itself together by its own boot straps. It's only worth building the infrastructure if you can get people to come to it. You're only going to get people to come to it if you've got the infrastructure. You can't do the behaviour change until they've got the alternatives, but the alternatives, the business case for those alternatives, doesn't stack up unless you do the behaviour change. So, the network has been designed to work, but it only works if you make progress on all fronts. So, I think this is something for the committee to look at in the future: are we progressing each of these packages equally? Because if there is a skewed approach, then we shouldn't expect the effect of the network to be as designed.

10:35

Sorry, I was just saying that's helpful, Peter. Sorry, Lord Burns, you were going to say.

We have a long list of recommendations and they need prioritising in different ways. Some of them—

Which are the most essential to relieve congestion, which perhaps can be short-term wins, in your view?

Well, my position on this is that, ultimately, getting the rail system to work in the way that we want it to is the key to much of this. We can make improvements, we believe, by the proposals we put forward for buses, for integrated ticketing, for—. We have an infrastructure proposal too for improving traffic within Newport, where there is a real bottleneck as far as buses are concerned, in terms of using the roads at the Old Green roundabout. Those things can all produce effects, and quite important effects. Also the workplace planning and getting the big employers in the region to co-operate more and to focus upon this issue of getting people to and from stations. One of the real problems is that we have these very high levels of employment, which, at the moment, are a long way from good public transport options. And we're in the process of building lots of housing in east Newport and in north Cardiff, which also are some distance from public transport options. So, work can proceed on some of those, but the fact that something like the rail project is going to take longer to deliver is—. I do not want to see that therefore as thinking, 'Well, because it takes a long time, we can put off that until later.' These have got to be done so that they, ultimately, come together as a complete package.

And what discussions have you had with the Welsh Government—either yourself or Peter—since the publication of the report? What's the focus of those discussions?

So, we've been—. The first thing to say is that we have no formal role, but we have been kept updated and we are grateful for those updates. We have joined Welsh Government in a number of meetings with Network Rail and the Department for Transport in the UK Government, because we feel very strongly, as Lord Burns says, that the things that take the longest need to be started first, if the package is to come together as a whole at the end. So, we have been involved in those meetings. As I mentioned before, previously, we are pleased at the speed with which the delivery unit has been established, and I believe that Members are going to be updated by the Minister next week, which will give a further update to the oral statement that was given on 8 December.

There's a statement next week, I think, yes, on the commission. That's right, yes. And do you—?

Just from my perspective, I'm very pleased by the response that we've had from the Government and the speed with which they have moved on this. We kept them up to date as we got towards the end of the project about where we were going, as we did with quite a number of the stakeholders, so that they knew where this was heading and what the kind of proposals were that we were going to be making. But I'm really very encouraged by the response that has been, as well as the response that we've had from Network Rail and from others who see this as a real prospect of untangling a range of issues that have been waiting to be dealt with. We've made some other proposals that we hope could fit in with this too in terms of the Ebbw Vale line and its interaction with it, and getting the Ebbw Vale line to Newport. We've looked at the prospect of a station at Caerleon, which is all part of improving this network as a whole network.

10:40

Is there anything that you think that the delivery unit perhaps should be focusing on that they might not be focusing on the moment, or is there a priority for them that perhaps they've not yet addressed in your view at all?

Obviously, today, I'm no longer closely involved with this, but in terms of what I have learnt, I think that they have been moving every bit as fast as one could have hoped for. I'm very pleased with that and the speed with which it has been set up and the way that it's got under way.

And the same to you, Peter, in that you seem to be more involved with the day-to-day work of the delivery unit. Is there anything you think that they could focus on more or that they should focus on more?

I think the challenge I would give them would be to get some of the fundamental underpinnings in place first. They've made excellent progress, but over the next months I would challenge them to start thinking about governance, think about what their funding envelope is and get their remit established and secured—those kinds of underpinning fundamentals, those kinds of foundations that will be very important to build upon in the future—because it's clear that this development unit is not a one or two-year exercise. This is something that will be with us for between five and 10 years, so it's well worth taking time on those foundations.

Have they not got a remit at the moment? Under what sort of direction are they working at the moment?

I think that they've been given quite a clear steer to interpret the report and to decide, in detail, on where next to go, and they have, I believe, also already signed a memorandum of understanding with Transport for Wales and Newport council, which, given we've had Christmas and a pandemic between now and the report, is really quite fantastic. But you would expect other building blocks as well, and you wouldn't expect them to exist now, but you would expect them to exist in six months' time.

Yes. You talked about governance arrangements as well, Peter; could you just expand on that?

Of course. So, it's the point I made a bit earlier about taking forward our governance recommendations in parallel with the infrastructure recommendations. That needs to happen in parallel. You can't come to the governance after you've built the infrastructure; they really do need to happen at the same speed.

I was going to say that another important part of this to us is that because of the pandemic and because of the consequences of that, because of some of the changes of behaviour, we think there is a breathing space here, where the pressure on the road is not going to be as intense as it was, but it's very important that we use that breathing space. We want to keep people's feet to the fire on this. We don't want to think that because the pressure has come off the road that somehow or other it means that there isn't going to be an ongoing, long-term problem here. And that long-term problem, as I see it, is that if we are to make a real success of this whole area, and indeed stretching it from Bristol right through to Cardiff and beyond, we have to get started with it. We have to think of the longer term and not be distracted by the fact that some of the pressures may ease in the shorter term.

As we discussed last time, it's geographically a very challenging job this, where you have these cities and these fantastic work opportunities along an area that is bounded on one side by the sea and is bounded on the other side by mountains, by and large. Fitting everything into this and making it work effectively, at a time of what we see is growing prosperity in that area, is going to be a real challenge, and it has to be seen as a long-term challenge, and those things have got to be worked on with one's eye on the future and not to let this stall for any reason.

Thank you, Lord Burns. That takes us up to the end of our session this morning unless there is anything you felt was pressing to say.

Thank you very much to Lord Burns and to Peter, that's a helpful session this morning, particularly ahead of the statement that I know that the Minister's making next week to the full Plenary as well. So, diolch yn fawr, thank you very much. We'll send you a transcript of proceedings, but always review it and if you think of anything you want to add to what you've said, then, by all means, let us know as a committee, but we appreciate your work very much and your time with us this morning. Diolch yn fawr.

10:45

Thank you very much.

Thank you, Lord Burns, and that takes us to our break. We'll have a short 10-minute break, if Members could be back just before 10:55.

Gohiriwyd y cyfarfod rhwng 10:45 a 10:58.

The meeting adjourned between 10:45 and 10:58.

10:55
4. Gweithio o Bell: Goblygiadau i Gymru—Canolfannau trefol a hybiau cymunedol
4. Remote Working: Implications for Wales—Urban centres and community hubs

Croeso, bawb. Welcome back. I move to item 4, and this is in regards to our piece of work on remote working and the implications for Wales, which we started just before Christmas. Today we have a panel focused on the implications for urban centres and community hubs. So, this is the second session of our inquiry, or it's the third panel, I think I'm correct to say, the second week. If I can first of all welcome our witnesses to help us with this piece of work, and thank you very much for your time. And if I could ask you to, perhaps, introduce yourselves for the public record, starting with Councillor Rob.

Thank you, Chair. Yes, Councillor Rob Stewart, leader of City and County of Swansea Council and chair of the Swansea bay city region.

11:00

Thank you, Chair. Phil Roberts, chief executive of Swansea council.

Good morning. Gareth Jones, chief executive of Town Square Spaces Ltd, and founding director of the UK Coworking Assembly.

Hi. I'm Mike Scott, director with Indycube community co-working network.

Thank you for that, and for introducing yourselves; it's appreciated. Just to say, this session is generally informal in its nature. We just want to draw out discussion and thoughts and views from yourselves, really. Perhaps if I can ask—. Don't feel that you all have to respond to every question that's put as well. I should say that we've got four witnesses, so if you do particularly want to come in after somebody else, just lift your pen or your hand up and I'll make sure I see you on the screen and come to you.

What economic impacts have urban and perhaps more rural centres seen during the pandemic, and what potential impacts might there be from a more longer term increase in remote working? So, it's quite a wide question, but perhaps asking you for some just general overview comments at the beginning of the session as well. Is there anybody who wants to particularly come in on that? Councillor Rob, and then I'll come to Phil Roberts; I think it looked like he wanted to come in as well. Councillor Rob.

Yes, Chair, thank you for that. Clearly, even before the pandemic, cities and our town centres were under threat from the twin threats of out-of-town shopping and the internet. What the pandemic has brought into focus is the fact that the changes that are necessary to make a vibrant and functioning town centre or city centre are even more pronounced. We've seen high-profile business failures in terms of retail chains struggling during the pandemic, and that has, if you like, accelerated the need to re-purpose our towns and city centres for a different offering.

You'll be aware that, in Swansea, there is a significant regeneration already under way here to try and take it from that 1970s, 1980s-style retail-based offering to a much more versatile leisure-style mixed offering that many city centres and town centres are moving towards. Clearly, part of that is having great infrastructure in place in terms of not just the physical roads infrastructure and the transport infrastructure to service that, but having the internet infrastructure, the 5G, the digital infrastructure that's really important to businesses, who need to be able to commerce properly and easily in those centres, and we've taken the opportunity locally to put that infrastructure in as part of the physical regeneration we're doing.

We're also changing the mix in the city centre around office space, but, of course, that in itself is changing as a result of the pandemic, and I'm sure we'll talk a little bit more about that later, but one of the key things for us is making sure that we build the mix that's right for the location. So, the element of retail, the element of leisure, the element of office and the element of living accommodation, so getting that balance right to make that city centre or town centre work effectively. The balance wasn't right previously and COVID has just really exposed that.

One plea from me, though, is I've heard comments from some commentators around the fact that people won't be travelling into work in such numbers in the future, they'll work from home—there will be some of that—and also that people won't need to have the investment in roads and other transport infrastructure. I think we would be repeating the mistakes of previous generations, like Beeching, where a whole host of our railways were discontinued on the basis that everybody was going to have a car. Well, what we learned from that was: yes, people have cars, but they still need railways. And I think we just need to be a bit cautious about rushing to discontinue or assume that people won't do things they did before, but encourage that sensible change in terms of the mix of how we use our cities and town centres.

Your example reminds me a bit of the start of the widespread use of PCs, and people said, 'Well, we'll no longer need much paper'—[Inaudible.] [Interruption.] Absolutely. Phil Roberts, I think you wanted to come in on that as well.

Yes, just to reinforce what the leader said, really. Here's a journey that we've been on for some years already. The thing I'd add to what he said is that it's not just some of the big-name retailers who've struggled—the independent retailers, the smaller, traditional retailers have struggled equally. This shift towards online retail will be compounded by the hits to the economy, the increase in unemployment, and the reduction in spending power, and so what it's effectively done for us is accelerate the journey that we were already on.

Clearly, the answer to the challenges around town and city centres is one of footfall, and in that respect, repopulating towns and cities. Swansea is an unusual city in Wales; there are a number similar to it in England. It was flattened, the city centre, over the space of three nights in the blitz in the second war, and rebuilt according to a template that is no longer fit for purpose. Retail patterns have changed. What we actually did was repopulate a huge resident population from the city centre to the suburbs, and I think one of the trends you're finding is not only are we trying to increase office-based work in hubs in the city centre, but we're trying to repopulate it quite successfully. There are a number of schemes that are on site and have continued through the pandemic, albeit with social distancing.

So I think, Chair, my main message is that what's happened is an acceleration of what we were doing. But I take Councillor Stewart's point that you can be a little bit determinist about this in terms of people's future. There is a possibility, of course, that people who have struggled with their own personal liberties will want to do exactly the opposite at the end of the pandemic, as soon as that comes, and there's an argument that people have missed that community and society and interaction with other human beings, which I think, at least in the short term, they'll want to recover. That's all I have to add, Chair.

11:05

Thank you. I'll ask Vikki Howells to come in, and if it's all right, Gareth, I'll then come to you to perhaps respond to Vikki's comments and add anything else you want to come in on as well. Vikki Howells.

Thank you, Chair. When it comes to remote working, there appear to be two schools of thought, really. There are those who are concerned that remote working could have negative economic impacts on some of our urban centres, and that sectors could be particularly affected by that. Then there are others who say that we could have these remote hubs in our towns and cities, and that would reinvigorate the local economy. What are your thoughts on that and how we can strike a balance to try and mitigate some of the potential negative effects?

I'll come to you, Gareth Jones, then I'll come to Mike, and I think Rob may have put his hand up as well. So, Gareth first, and then Mike.

Yes, so, I suppose for a bit of context, we're a benefit corporation who operates remote working hubs across the UK. Our first base was in Caerphilly, which was bucking the trend of doing it in larger cities and towns, and at that time, we had people working in San Francisco, in London, in Oslo who were based in Caerphilly and were able to work in that way. So, although we're seeing this rapid shift, this is a long-term pattern.

During the lockdown we did some research on our impact in Wrexham and what we found was that people were spending more on their high street. They were opting to not spend with online stores that we might all be familiar with, and the really interesting thing that we found was that people felt more proud to be from Wrexham, and people felt more connected with their community, and I think these are the really interesting aspects. Actually, I think maybe this is the second track there: I think this will be a boon for cities, because it will revert them to being hubs. And I do believe that the First Minister's position on people working sometimes from home, sometimes close to home and sometimes in urban centres will be the pattern, because people, exactly as Phil identified there, are missing this social connectivity, and this is certainly a pattern we're seeing in the uptake of space at the moment.

So, from the data we're seeing from the hubs we've had and the hubs that we operate, there are spillover benefits by having people in the town centre connected with their community, feeling maybe a greater sense of agency because they're more connected with local grass-roots democracy in that way as well. So, I think there are those benefits that we've seen that we've been able to capture, but I think this—picking up on Councillor Stewart's point—is a massive opportunity to create liveable cities, and to really rethink the way that the default has been in the past towards making them more accessible, maybe making them more culturally focused, and things like that. So, I'd say I'm definitely in the second camp, but maybe that's bias from what I've been subjected to over the last couple of years.

11:10

In a similar way, really, this is about flexibility and choice, and I think it's about allowing people to be human, to do what they do, and to be able to have the choice to do it the way that suits them best. I think we need to step back from the idea that there is a threat here, in that by allowing people to work more closely to where they live, they're less likely to use urban centres and to travel further into the city. I think what it actually does is give more flexibility, more space for people to come and congregate, and it releases the city centres, it releases urban centres from that grip of purely being there as an economic driver, and allows it to become a place where people actually want experiences again. 

I think one of the terms that was used a lot was 'retail experience', and we focus probably too much on the idea of retail and not enough on the idea of experience. People came together in city centres, in urban centres because they liked being around other people. It would just so happen that the driver for that for the last x amount of decades has been to shop, but we've been doing this for centuries and perhaps much longer than that. People like to congregate, and this is why urban centres developed, and that's not going to change with a change in culture in terms of shopping. People will come together for the same reasons as they always have—they like being around other people, they like the buzz, they like the experience, and it's about creating that offer again within the city centres and allowing people the flexibility to work closer to home, to have that extra time when they need it, and to have that time then to spend at the locations when that's necessary. 

Indycube runs two types of places; we've got city centre locations, which we've had for many areas that are more established, more what you'd expect from a traditional co-working space, but we also use assets that are available in small towns and in rural areas, existing community centres, existing spaces that were otherwise overlooked, and we found that people will use both. Having that choice makes it something that allows that flexibility. So, I don't think we should be threatened by the idea of remote work; I think it's going to actually increase, not decrease, the need for people to come to our urban centres, and that's a good thing. 

If I could just ask one final question, Chair. Just to play devil's advocate, doesn't it depend almost entirely upon the exact location of these hubs? If we saw a trend towards hubs being set up on the edges of towns or out of towns, then we could get exactly the same kind of negative economic impact that we had from out-of-town shopping. So, do you think that there needs to be some  consideration in planning laws around this? 

Mike, do you want to come back on that, or Gareth? Gareth first. Mike. You go ahead, Mike. 

I'm already talking. I think there's a real difference to the retail park culture that was created and allowing people the choice to work closer to home, because it's about choice. We're not asking people or telling people that they should now only have one option and that's to stay where they are and work from a hub that's close to them. What we're talking about is giving people the option to do that when it suits them, but also have the opportunity there to travel into more traditional spaces to work at other times. And that creates flexibility that suits us as people in terms of the time that we've got, and the opportunities we have based around our lifestyles. Retail parks are very much about going to do something for a certain amount of time at a place that has culturally shifted people away from what they were doing at the retail sectors in the cities. This is a really different opportunity, I think, and one that will increase footfall back into the cities, not take it away.  

I suppose just quickly on that, the first thing is there's an opportunity for innovative new policies around things like section 106 use. So, there's a really interesting Act—the affordable workspace Act, which Islington Council created around how new developments focus on this, being able to create workspace closer to residential developments in order to address that. I think there is the alleviation of traffic into urban centres that might see that as being of benefit, but I really think this is about a strategic look at where are the obvious outbound commuter routes, and where we can tackle those pinch-points, because we have that data. We can address that, and I think that gives us enough of an initial market to start with, to prove whether this has got legs.

11:15

Yes, thank you for that. I don't want to leave Vikki's point altogether, though, because in saying that out-of-town hubs could be what we might be looking at, or what we're talking about at the moment, their ancillary activity will also be out of town. I mean, if I'm going to be nipping into a work hub in, let's say, Fforestfach, I'm going shopping in Fforestfach; I'm not coming into town. So, I don't know if we can dismiss it quite as lightly as we seem to be doing at the moment. People's centres of activity will, in the round, possibly change, mightn't they? And so, actually, the offer to come into the city centre needs to be a bit clearer, maybe, than what we're talking about now, rather than just a place to have leisure, or have the city centre to be your hub, if you're lucky enough to live close enough to the city centre.

Vikki, did you have anything else to ask on this area at all? No. What I'll do is I know Councillor Stewart—Rob—and Phil want to come in, but if I bring in Helen Mary to ask her next question, and then I'll come to you both and perhaps prop up both questions as well. Helen Mary Jones.

Thank you, Chair. Rob Stewart, you've already begun to touch a little bit on the question I'm going to ask now, so you might want to add to that, but if you could tell us a bit more about what possibilities there might be that increasing remote working could provide for reshaping our towns and city centres in physical terms—perhaps repurposing buildings, enhancing green space. And do you—all of you, of course—have any thoughts about how the Welsh Government should support businesses and local authorities to achieve those sorts of changes?

Thank you, Chair. I'll deal with Helen's point in a second, but just going back to what Suzy and Vikki have said, my view of this—and it's borne out by our conversations with numerous businesses who we are talking to about being tenants in the city that we're creating—is that actually there hasn't been the sea change to suddenly say, 'Okay, so we've all learnt that we can work from home now, so we're all going to do that forever.' That's certainly not what people are telling us, and I think we're going to move to a much more flexible position, as Mike and Gareth have laid out, which is you will have these bases where people can work for a few days a week, and then perhaps work more flexibly in other locations during the rest of the week, and I think that's a really good thing for home-life balance. It helps with us not having to traipse—. Politicians are really good at traipsing around Wales to meet up at different locations for a meeting, but we've all demonstrated we can all dial in from wherever we are, so there are real benefits there as well.

But I think, to come on to Helen's point and what Suzy referenced, we should still be pushing for, essentially, large Government functions, which are largely based at the moment around the capitals, to move out to our other areas, because if we are able to bring those Government functions out into our other cities and towns, then the economic impact of having those bases created there is going to be significant. We've got large Government employers in Swansea, but a lot of them are primarily based on the outskirts and they don't have the same economic impact on the city centre that they could do if they were based in the city centre itself. When you have those functions, then—those jobs, those offices there—you then bring your retailers around them, and then you bring your hospitality around them, and it is a real economic boost to the area. I would have some concerns if we were proposing to create hubs in an out-of-town way. I think if we're going to support our city centres and our town centres, in any move to do that, those hubs should really be part of that fabric.

Just to deal with Helen's point around the use of buildings et cetera, well we're already on that journey. We've reduced our civic centres from three down to one. A number of Government departments have done the same thing in the area, where they've been looking at rationalisation of their estate. I think what COVID has taught us in remote working is, actually, these flexible, useable spaces can be used by multiple organisations at different times, and the technology works. We've proven it can work. So, there's no reason why this model cannot now be expanded to the benefit of our cities and to the employers and to the businesses that will use them.

I'll just unmute myself. If I could go back to Vikki Howells's original question, which also related to planning law. I'm not a planner, but I think, with the hubs we'd be missing a massive opportunity if we didn't either use whatever legislation and levers were at our disposal or incentives to make sure that we didn't repeat the mistakes of out-of-town shopping. The application of sequential tests, providing you have a robust evidence base, should support that. We've done that in retail; we've successfully fought off unhelpful applications in order to protect and help the city centre to thrive. So, the reality for me is we look at all possible routes and those routes relate not just to things like planning levers, but incentives.

Could I then turn to Helen Mary Jones's question, which is one that's been focusing me? So, the first part of it is: what is it that we're actually trying to do in recreating city centres, and what actions are we taking? I think I'd go directly to the specifics, to the practical, so to speak. We're altering the transport network and introducing pedestrianisation where we can, and part of that is to improve air quality. The air quality in town and city centres is often very poor. It's a hugely challenging subject for the health service, and, of course, residential permissions will depend on satisfying air quality requirements. So, that's a key driver for environmental and for regeneration purposes, and that has to be supported by providing better, greener public realm. Some people get quite nostalgic about Swansea Kingsway, but when I look at photos of Swansea Kingsway in the 1960s, I see concrete monoliths rather than a friendly, biodiverse environment. So, my nostalgia isn't on that page, really.

Key to it for me is providing more and better-quality residential development, and on top of that, investing in digital infrastructure in the city to improve connectivity and competitiveness for office and tech industries that rely on it. It was mentioned previously that investing in the culture and leisure offer is very important through the redevelopment of things like museums and galleries, which we've done in Swansea with the construction of a digital arena and the promotion of a cultural quarter on High Street. The thing that will attract people is a sufficient quantum of things that are interesting for them to visit, and that's not just residents and people who live in the vicinity, that's tourists as well. And then, on that level, promoting and marketing the cities and city regions for tourism and inward investment is important. And I think a lot of the stuff that we're doing around the Swansea bay city deal, as a regional partnership, supports that.

So, this whole notion of embedding a green infrastructure, for me, is part of a long-term sustainable solution. And I think, when you look with hindsight at the history of the retail parks, you'll see their rise and fall for the same reasons that you see, in part, the rest of the retail sector failing, because it will fail to compete with the huge warehousing of the Amazons, et cetera, of this world and digital and online shopping. So, I think the answer is to create a healthy, sustainable and green space, albeit one that has high-level connectivity, which is absolutely essential if you're going to keep the sorts of businesses that we want in our cities. Thank you.

11:20

Helen Mary, do you want to come back, or do you want to bring in Gareth and Mike? I'll let you—

Let's bring Gareth in and then I'll come back if I need to, Chair, if that's okay. Gareth.

I think it's really important here that whatever this new solution is, it's a high-quality provision, because we're talking about a culture change, we're not talking about providing a new kind of office, or anything like that. And if people go there on the first day and the WiFi isn't good enough, or if it's not clean or it doesn't feel professional, well, all of these simple things just won't do it and that culture shift won't happen. So, I think it's a really important thing here to focus on how we provide high-quality provision that people want to use and want to be connected with, and I think that moves away from where we've tried this in the past, perhaps, and invested tens of millions into an initiative that could've delivered something like this, but has failed and that, in turn, people will then think that this won't work. This absolutely will work and can work and will work, so we need to be really focused. And what I'm talking about here is it's not cheap to have enterprise-grade IT equipment in there, it's not cheap to have the right quality of broadband that you need, it's not cheap to have cyber security expertise, to have all the additional provision of services that you need to have to make these professional services work.

So, I think the location is important, but I'd be much more keen for us to look at how do we repurpose spaces that are already up, rather than looking at building new spaces and investing in that side, and that's where I think we have in Wales a very unique opportunity around—. The Development Bank of Wales could be a force for this in almost creating like a social impact bond-style model, where you get an interest rate rebate or something if you achieve future gen objectives or Welsh Government policy objectives. So, if you can prove that you've taken 100 people off the road three, four, five days a week, then you might get two or three percentage points dropped off your interest rate, which is refunded to you as a rebate, or—. I think we can—. 

What I'm saying is, when it comes to funding and investing in it, I don't think we're talking about building nice big glass shiny temples. I think we're talking about looking at buildings that are already of the community, in the heart of the community, connected to public transport hubs et cetera, and looking at how we invest in that community building and in the provision of services to make sure they're as good as can be. And we've got a great furniture provider we work with who works with the Merthyr Institute for the Blind to repurpose old furniture. So, we're talking about non-virgin materials going into our spaces. There's a really deep environmental impact on this when it comes to building new buildings and fitting them out in this nice, smart way. But I think this can be a message to the people of Wales that we're doing this in a different way. This is not 'business as usual', because 'business as usual' is no longer a thing. 

11:25

All of that's very helpful, thank you. Can I just ask, Chair, what do you—? I think we're all broadly on the same page here about good quality provision, re-using existing buildings, repurposing spaces, but are there things that you think that we should be recommending to Welsh Government that they need to do? They've set this target around remote working. So, obviously, it then falls to them to support both local authorities and businesses to make this happen. Are there things that they need to do in terms of changing regulations or—? I'm thinking about some of Gareth's points about maybe what could be done with development bank loans, for example; so, that's one kind of concrete idea we could think about. Or is it really about supporting local authorities and businesses to do more of some of the things that are happening anyway, and to use things like—we've mentioned section 106 agreements—to use those in new and different ways? Do we need a change in national policy? Or do we just need to do better with what the existing frameworks are? 

Shall I bring in Mike first? I think he was waiting a bit earlier as well. Mike.  

Yes, some of the points have been made. I think I was going to pick up on community assets. Just going back to Vikki's point about out-of-town hubs, I think there's clearly a mistake to be made if we start investing in building out-of-town work hubs for people to then travel to; I think the assets are there in the communities already. There are community centres and available spaces all across Wales, which would, I'm sure, welcome some kind of support in the years to come and would make purposeful places for people to work on a casual basis. So, the idea of putting a load of money behind new work hubs out of town I think would be a complete mistake. I think everybody's pretty much on that page, really. That was the point I was looking at making. 

I'll come to Gareth Jones and then Rob Stewart after. Gareth Jones. 

Yes. So, I suppose there are three points and then one that is the 'what comes next'. So, the first point would be that I think we need an outbound commuter heat map across Wales for us to be able to say where do we think we're trying to build these hubs in order to address—if it's commuting that we're trying to address—and, in turn, where do we use, for example, estate agent data to show where the trends are. We've been speaking to rural estate agents who are saying they're getting three month's worth of business in 12 months. So, it's not just headlines; it seems like this habit is really happening. So, that data is important for us to be able to say, 'This is where we think we need the hubs.' 

The second part of it, I'd say, is an asset register, which is local authorities and government, public-owned properties that could be repurposed for this use, and that might be larger spaces or it might be, 'We have a room in our local library' or 'We have a room which has been made as a result of downsizing et cetera.'  And, then, the third aspect is this flexible investment fund, which I think can be facilitated through the development bank, and they've done this in Ireland as well, which is to say, 'There is £15 million, £20 million, that we will make available to invest into this on a commercial basis.' As I say, things like the social impact elements would be great, but, I think, on a commercial basis is the first step.

And then the final point, if that's all in place, is to look at that market development, and I think the aspects in here would be Welsh Government committing to this as a policy for their staff, so, as a perk or something like this, that they can use these spaces, and there's an economic model there. And then encouraging corporates to embrace this way of working. And I think that's what the new economic contract does a great job of being able to do. If employers were willing to give this as a flexible working perk, then that in turn creates this additional market that I think would encourage the uptake of these spaces. So, yes, the three things that Government can do, and there are the three softer things that Government can influence.

11:30

Right. Thank you. That's helpful. Anybody else got any thoughts on that?

Yes, if I could. I think one of the things that we have pressed Welsh Government on is around the creation of enterprise zones within cities and towns, because it hasn't been a level playing field, because we've had this out-of-town unlevel playing field at the present time. One of the barriers for people wanting to relocate into our cities and towns has been the fact that they don't, generally, house enterprise zones. So, I think that's one of the things that Welsh Government could consider doing—to establish those zones to make it more attractive for businesses to move their operations into those areas.

Obviously, from this year, councils as well will receive the general power of competence. That will allow councils to become much more flexible in terms of how they can invest and support businesses across Wales. And I think, again, we need to work closely with Welsh Government to make sure that the powers the general power of competence gives us are maximised so that we can support the growth of new jobs in our area, we can become investors and lenders and catalysts for driving jobs and economic growth in our areas, because I think we have had not just one arm tied behind our back in Wales—we've had two arms tied behind our back, compared to councils in England who've had very, very broad powers to do these sorts of things for many years, and it's really good to see that coming in as part of the Wales Bill this year.

Helen Mary, it looks like you've got no further questions, but Mike wanted to come in.

Just to pick up on what Rob was saying, really. I think one of the things about the conversation is that, when we're talking about remote working at the moment, we're envisaging people with a laptop and a desk and broadband. There's a lot of other work being done out there in Wales at the end of the day, and supporting that, I think, with facilities, is going to be something that we're really going to have to increase, especially in terms of building that enterprise into the places where people are. Providing facilities, lowering the barriers, for people to start and to innovate and to create wealth and jobs for themselves is something we need to look at, and offering that in the same flexible way that we've now done with desk space.

And I think investment in those facilities at the urban centres creates that new innovation within city centres. Makerspaces—we've worked with numerous makerspaces over the last few years, especially across the north-east and into the north-west of England. They are real drivers for new innovation within regions, and we still seem to be miles behind in Wales in terms of the development of makerspaces and in terms of flexible access to facilities that just go further than offering broadband and a desk. The real barriers to creating and starting new wealth is often the cost involved in the investment in production facilities, whether that's in the creative industries, whether that's in product design, whether that's in food and drink. Those access points are, at the moment, not available for a lot of small businesses, and thinking about remote working in terms of offering flexible facilities as well as desk space, I think, is going to be really important in the years to come.

Yes. Thank you. Chair, quite a lot of what I wanted to ask has already been dealt with, but I'm just curious to have your thoughts, actually, on the human behaviour that would—or the effect on human behaviour of what we’re trying to do now. What will it take to persuade people who've set up their own businesses at home and are happy working from home, perhaps, to use some of these hubs? Do we also run the risk that people are too comfortable at home?

11:35

Yes. It's a very good point, and I think this is an important point around not mandating the use of these services. I think it's something that is encouraged, but, from our side, what we've seen is increased trade opportunities between members. Over 90 per cent of our members have commercial collaborative agreements with each other, and they collaborate then on bigger projects as a result. And then there's this wider field-of-view benefit that comes from being exposed to a community like that, and there are the events and activities that we hold. So, I think it's about providing an offering that goes beyond just a place to work and to something they can feel connected to. And I think, picking up on points that many people have made in this conversation already, there's that social side, which is quite an important point.

But I'd probably make one other point as well, and I don't mean this in terms of criticism—and I've been criticised for saying this before—but I think the gender representation is a really important part from us giving evidence today. What we've seen during lockdown is childcare is something that tends to be a burden—you know, in heteronormative relationships, couples, it tends to fall on the woman, and, in turn, that creates a bunch of other barriers when we're talking about this new flexible work style. So, I would urge the committee to look at how childcare provision in town centres, for example, or connected to these hubs, might be done in a new way. Because I think there is a massive opportunity here to have a new, flexible, innovative model of childcare that could involve either partner, parents or guardian dropping their child off for two hours while they go and do a Zoom call or something somewhere else in a hub or something. So, I think this is a blank canvas for us to do something really innovative, but I think we need to recognise where we have blind spots or maybe where the old way of doing things now is gone and this new way really creates massive opportunities for new business models, new service models, et cetera.

Yes. Well, thank you, and, actually, thank you for raising the point on gender implications here. At the moment, there are a few of us on here who have probably been through that experience of, you have to drop your child off for childcare, and that's where they stay. And that's why I didn't want us to walk past Vikki's earlier points about, you know, if you're going to a hub, you're going to be doing shopping there, you're going to be doing your childcare there. Actually, all you're doing is recreating the lack of flexibility, if you commit to a hub, that you were before. Actually, I just think that's very useful.

Can I just ask you something about Welsh Government support during the COVID crisis and whether the businesses who find themselves based at the current hubs—the Indycubes of the world—have found it difficult to access Welsh Government support for their ability not to continue in business, perhaps? Although I imagine quite a few of them have managed to continue despite COVID, because of the fact they're working perhaps from home or from a specific hub. Have there been any problems on that score?

No, there hasn't been an issue with that. I think, going back to the earlier point, it's got to be recognised as well that a lot of the information we're getting, the feedback we're getting at the moment from homeworking, has very much been—and I say this in terms of the situation, but it's been a honeymoon period in terms of people working from home for the first time. So, this is a really short amount of time to base any stats on in terms of how people have reacted to homeworking. It's year two, year three, when people have relocated to home on a long-term basis—the impact that has is far different to what we've seen over the past eight to 10 months. For a lot of people, it's been a release and it's been a good thing, and they've recognised that the less the commute, the less time they've spent on the road has been good for them; they've had time back. But, over a longer period of time, I think we're definitely going to see the negative impact that homeworking has, and it's important to recognise that it's certainly not going to last in terms of the good times will change. You know, the home is where people live, it's where people have families, it's where people have relationships; it's not necessarily where we should be working. I think that's really worth recognising.

I suppose—. Well, our work, or in our work, we will be making recommendations to the Government, but perhaps, as we draw this session to an end, in terms of recommendations that we could make to the Government, what do you think that the Welsh Government needs to do further to support remote working in terms of investment? Anything that perhaps has not already been addressed as well in particular. Gareth Jones.

Sorry, I could talk about this all day long. Yes, I think the important thing here is pace. So, we have a limited window now around this culture shift and whatever that new normal will be. Touch wood, we're all hoping and praying that, come the summer, we'll have a much clearer idea on what that next phase of all of our lives looks like, but I think there needs to be a statement in place that this behaviour can be locked in. And I think it is about working close to home. Picking up on Mike's good point there about how it's not about this idea of—and I think it's been mentioned in previous committee briefings—remote working being this abstract thing; it's about this idea of working closer to home, which is an important action or invitation, I suppose. So, I think it's really about that kind of pace and, as I've highlighted, I think there are those kind of immediate steps that can be taken. And I think this is cross-cutting; it ties into transport strategy, it ties into infrastructure strategy, it ties into regeneration, and I know there are lots of passionate, committed civil servants working very, very hard at this right now. But, really, what I have to say is that some kind of clarity coming in just after the election period, I think, would be really useful.

11:40

I'd agree with Gareth's comments on pace. If we look at previous pandemics, as Phil Roberts, chief executive, mentioned, there is a history here of once the pandemic ends, people wanting to rush back to do the things they've missed. I think we've got to be ready for that. As I've said before, if the Welsh Government can move forward with its recovery programme, help remove some of those barriers that currently exist as quickly as possible, I think that would be really helpful, and bring forward those packages of support to help people adopt those new ways of working or to get into those new ways of working and retain them. I think, for employers, it's making sure that employers can't frustrate people in retaining these better and more flexible ways of working, because there is still resistance there from some employers to allow people to homework and to have that home-life balance. And, obviously, finally, continue with the investment in the digital networks, because if we're going to have this flexibility—whatever the flexibility ends up looking like—it will need reliable, affordable, comprehensive networks out there that people can then utilise. And that has to be something that covers the whole of Wales, not just the popular centres. So, that would be my plea.

Very good—absolutely, Rob. Mike, you wanted to come in. And if anyone else wants a last word on this, now is your chance. Mike Scott.

Just to recognise as well that this has not really been a behavioural change. The choices that people have had to make are based on the situation that we're in at the moment, and large numbers of the people who are now working from home wouldn't be working from home had we not been put in the position we're in now. So, it's really understanding that and recognising that there will be a shift again once the situation changes. If we're asking people now to stay at home to work, if that's something that's being pushed forward, then, again, that's not necessarily a shift in behaviour, but it's a change in the choices of where they can and can't work. So, it's about really being able to represent people from their point of view, and develop spaces and develop a culture of remote work that actually fits for the user and not necessarily as something that we prescribe to them based on what we feel is going to work longer term.

Gareth, you wanted to come in as well, and perhaps you'd want to comment on any lessons from existing providers as well.

So, the important point I just wanted to make quickly was—I mentioned gender inclusion—that there's a wider inclusion question here, which, I think, we need to address around whether these spaces are affordable, whether they're accessible, and things like that. And, I think, what we've seen over the last couple of years is this trend of bring your own devices as something that has become the norm—that people are expected to pay for their own computer equipment and kit and things like that. One big fear I have as an operator is that we end up in the situation where it's almost bring your own desk and that people are expected to pay for that themselves in order to get the kind of head-space—. I'm sure you can hear my young son singing away in the background.

And, you know, we had the coin toss of whether I show you my bedroom and the dirty laundry or does my partner on her call. So, it's this balance, I think, around—. The inclusion side of this is that most people don't have space for two adults to work from home, they don't have fast enough broadband—all of these things. And so when we're talking about inclusion and gender, we really need to think about whether we focusing on making these spaces as inclusive as possible, whether that's across gender or across your wealth or race, et cetera. So, inclusion is a very important part for these spaces to work.

11:45

Yes, absolutely. Thank you, Gareth. I'll let you go and feed your son now—lunch time, I think, is calling by the sounds of it. Thank you for that. I think I've gone round everyone, unless there is anybody else that wanted to add anything pressing. No. In that case, I think that's been a really valuable session for us this morning. I appreciate it and, as always, I appreciate all your time, as well, because I know that you're all busy people struggling to balance working at home. So, we appreciate your time with us this morning. Diolch yn fawr. Thank you.

5. Cynnig o dan Reol Sefydlog 17.42(ix) i benderfynu gwahardd y cyhoedd o weddill y cyfarfod
5. Motion under Standing Order 17.42(ix) to resolve to exclude the public for the remainder of the meeting

Cynnig:

bod y pwyllgor yn penderfynu gwahardd y cyhoedd o weddill y cyfarfod yn unol â Rheol Sefydlog 17.42(ix).

Motion:

that the committee resolves to exclude the public from the remainder of the meeting in accordance with Standing Order 17.42(ix).

Cynigiwyd y cynnig.

Motion moved.

With that, I move to item 5 and, under Standing Order 17.42, resolve to exclude the public from the remainder of the meeting, if Members are content. Thank you.

Derbyniwyd y cynnig.

Daeth rhan gyhoeddus y cyfarfod i ben am 11:45.

Motion agreed.

The public part of the meeting ended at 11:45.